In late July, as the deadline to sign draftees approached, the Edmonton Oilers realized they would not be able to sign their 2015 sixth-round pick, Harvard defenseman John Marino. Through a quirk in the NHL CBA, college players can become free agents after their collegiate career if they remain unsigned past August 15. Edmonton realized Marino was not going to sign and flipped him to the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 26 for a conditional sixth-round pick.
Marino is no dummy. He completed a Harvard degree in just three years and graduated with honors.
Not only is Marino a whiz in the classroom, but he’s also a quick study on the ice, too. Marino’s first exposure to the Penguins was the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo on Sept. 6-9. Marino had just 11 points (3g, 8a) in his senior season, so the expectation of offense wasn’t high on the list, but Marino quickly became one of the offensive drivers of the Penguins squad.
He told PHN during the Prospects Challenge, “Yeah, that’s something I’ve been trying to incorporate a little more,” he said. “I’d say defense is definitely my strongest suit, but I’m trying to improve little things on the offensive blue line, get shots through, joining the rush and little things like that.”
He succeeded. And he is slowly but surely succeeding in the NHL preseason, too. During PHN analysis of Marino, we’ve noticed he gets better as the game progresses. He adjusts very well and gains more confidence, also. Marino has been apt to make mistakes in the first period, but settle and push the play more in the second period.
Others have noticed Marino’s push for an NHL job, too.
“Great composure with the puck. Good hockey IQ. Great long stick. Moves well,” WBS Penguins coach/GM Mike Vellucci told Pittsburgh Hockey Now. “Has a good shot. He impressed a lot of people.”
The Penguins have put him in a sweater for all four preseason games. He’s getting an extensive, and perhaps exhaustive look even as the Penguins roster is full. This week, coaches and the Penguins GM Jim Rutherford will assign more players to the AHL training camp and pare down their 46-man roster.
Marino will be the last of cuts, but there are a few factors working against him. First, the Penguins already have 24 NHL contracts. Chad Ruhwedel and Tristan Jarry are likely to make a lot of money in the AHL this season. Second, the Penguins can only afford 22 players on their roster, anyway. The salary cap situation is so tight that a couple of injuries to lower-paid players could wreak salary cap havoc and force the team to play shorthanded.
And lastly, Marino isn’t quite there, yet. His game is still developing. The graceful skating, heady defenseman is still learning his trade and could use a little seasoning in the AHL before he is ready. The tools are present. His footwork is strong. His hockey IQ is evident as he jumps into the play but quickly gets back to the blue line. And he can get out of his own zone.
“You learn new things each game. The coaches have been great,” Marino said Sunday in Detroit. “There are so many guys around here to help you out –the coach, and (Sergei) Gonchar behind the bench. He helps with the little things. There’s just so much to learn, and I’m trying to take everything in that I can.”
Still, Some Work to Do
However, his shortcoming has been in the battle areas. John Marino is listed at 6-foot-2, 181 pounds. In Columbus Saturday and in Detroit Sunday, Marino was on the wrong end of net skirmishes and end wall battles. He was outmuscled by NHL competition.
“I’m trying to get used to the pace. Obviously, it’s a little different than college. You’ve got to move the puck fast,” Marino said Sunday night in Detroit. “And transition. It’s kind of an up and down game, so I’ve got to get used to that.”
If the Penguins situation changes, Marino could well be at the NHL level, and the team let him grow and play against NHLers instead of plying his craft in the minors. But Penguins changes seem unlikely. Sooner or later, he will force the Penguins hand. And that’s not a bad problem to have.